This was written for a sociology of 'deviant behavior' class in late April 2003. Facts have passed out of date and Mr. Mellor's photos probably aren't still on the wall at the Al-Rasheed Hotel.
The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, "Operation Iraqi Freedom
,” was politically made feasible in an unusual fashion, which in many ways could be considered a moral panic. While international politics
are more complex than the panics which grip societies from time to time, the way in which the case for war was crafted and the way moral justifications were invented bear the imprint of a moral panic.
The five basic criteria, as defined in Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda's "Moral Panics", that help define a moral panic can be found throughout the war. The war's justification tended to change around from month to month, but heightened concern, hostility, consensus, disproportional evidence, and volatility were all constructed and exacerbated to support the case for war.
American society's concern over Saddam's regime escalated after September 11 when the problem of terrorism in the Middle East reached New York. This multiplied with continued concern over what sorts of things Saddam might try to do against America, which had already humiliated him once. While most Americans did not fear Saddam after September 11, what his role would be in the emerging ‘war on terror' concerned many, and this was reflected in public speculation. Of course, Pentagon advisor Paul Wolfowitz pounced on the opportunity and began heightening George W. Bush's concerns about Saddam on September 12.
The consensus aspect of the war was constantly hammered into the American public. For example, I recall watching FOX News after a day of massive nationwide protests. Fox showed a narrow shot of protesters and reported how many had appeared. "However, to be fair and balanced," said the anchor, "polls show that 60% of Americans support military action against Saddam." The poll graphic replaced the protesters and the iron fist of consensus was proven in a fair and balanced fashion.
Orchestrating the appearance of consensus and reducing the necessity of real consensus in order to bring America into a war has been made easier by changes in the powers of war and control of the media. Media concentration continues to escalate here and the owners are typically very conservative. The radio industry is an excellent example. Today Clear Channel, a Texas-based radio corporation, owns about half the stations in the country, including a large number of right-wing talk stations. Before the war, Clear Channel stations helped organize and sponsor pro-war rallies labeled "Rally for America." This certainly helped build consensus that supporting the war was morally correct.
The executive branch has eased the actual necessity of solid consensus over war by seizing the power to make war from Congress. While the Constitution declares that Congress has the exclusive power to declare war, the president has been able to secure control over this power by getting authorizations for the use of force far in advance of the opening of hostilities. This means there can be no point where the country has to definitively answer yes or no to the question of war. The explicit determination of consensus can be avoided, and the dominant media can issue polls which show that most Americans support action of some type, and those polls become the de facto consensus, end of story.
Hostility towards Iraq has been palpable for a long time in this country. Ever since I was in second grade, we have been taught that Saddam was a bad, powerful man who invaded other countries. America is familiar with hating Saddam and his troublesome regime. However, there would be no basis for a war without September 11 occurring, because this event upset and confused Americans and created within them suspicion towards Arabs within un-democratic regimes. Widespread hatred towards Saddam, almost as a folk devil, could be called forth as the injustice of Kuwait, the Iran war and the Kurdish genocide were reiterated ad nauseam in the media. Saddam, could be portrayed as a supporter of Terror, of Fear.
By amplifying the concept of a "terror nation" (which Syria apparently is now as well, according to Ari Fleischer) it was possible to de-legitimize the Iraqi government to the American people and connect it to "the terrorists." How can you support terror? How can you support fear? That became a boundary of pro-war thinking, and anyone thinking beyond that tidy line of reason was easily labeled an apologist for the murderer of Halabja.
What occurred at Halabja is worth examining because it reveals how thin the moral justifications for this war truly were. During the final weeks of buildup, the word "Halabja" became the key concept to throw at those protesters. Saddam was in fact a genocidal killer towards the Kurds many years ago. Hence, it is argued that now his state's legitimacy had been voided. But this argument didn't square with the Republican and British policies towards him at the time.
At the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, there is a series of photographs of British diplomats meeting with Saddam. There is a portrait of David Mellor, who was being entertained by Saddam as he ordered Halabja. There are portraits of Tony Newton, Thatcher's Trade Secretary, visiting less than a month later, offering 340 million pounds of export credits. Newton returned three months later to rejoice that Iraq was now Britain's third-largest market for machine tools, which permit all sorts of weapons to be manufactured. Somehow the moral outrage of Halabja only comes into focus when hawks make issue of it 15 years later.
Another key characteristic of moral panics is the manifestation of a disproportionate or distorted threat. The threat is necessary to increase public fear, which in turn hinders opposition to the leader's policy. This was clearly evident in the escalation to war, where the Bush administration constantly overstated the danger presented by Hussein's continued rule. When the issue was weapons of mass destruction, the administration fabricated evidence wholesale. British intelligence plagiarized graduate student reports in its fabled ‘Saddam dossier.' When the issues were ties to terrorist organizations, a dubious story about Saddam's agents meeting Mohammed Atta in Prague was circulated and attained the level of concrete fact, at least as far as discourse in the mass media was concerned. However, Saddam was an enemy of Al-Qaeda, who regard secular Arab leaders as obstacles on the path to the institution of Islamic states across the Middle East. Bin Laden said so himself a number of times.
Ironically the ease with which the US conducted the war proved the falsity of its claims. Saddam had few rockets, he deployed no chemical weapons (though many chemical weapon suits), he had no cells of followers spring up and gun down Americans at bus stations across the US. There were no anthrax attacks on the subways, no retaliatory terrorist bombings in the name of Great Saddam. Nothing unconventional happened. Baathist Iraq, for all its expected deviancy in conduct, did nothing resembling terrorism outside the country itself, besides launching a handful of missiles at Kuwait.
It is still a possibility that the threat from Iraq has been completely mis-constructed. What the US has to fear is perhaps not simple acts of terrorism, and certainly not the forces of an organized military. Rather, the situation on the ground in Iraq indicates that automatic weapons are widely available on the free market. A Kalashnikov assault rifle is available for about half what it cost during the Baath regime. During Saddam's reign, weaponry like that was only available to members of the Baath Party, but today they are available to all.
It appears that Saddam stocked arms caches all over the country, probably knowing full well that the Americans would easily overrun his sanctions-weakened (and "no-fly-zone" softened) military. He probably knew that the Baath was widely disliked, as it had been already been overthrown from most of the country after the first Gulf War. But Saddam may have fantasized that his people would be so disgusted by the American administration that they would reorganize to resist the imposition of a polite post-Saddam political order. And so he left his people two intertwined gifts: a hatred of the Americans (assisted by sanctions), and many thousands upon thousands of new guns and grenade launchers.
The conduct of the war was crucial to determining whether the Iraqis would be inclined to resist. Two key factors may indicate what attitude they are likely to take. First was the destruction of the Iraqi National Museum, which could have easily been avoided but for "lack of troops." The destruction of this and other priceless cultural institutions surely angered many Iraqis. Second, the relatively slim force which conquered the country had few troops to prevent lawlessness, which incited many Iraqis to form impromptu militias of necessity to defend their home turf and property. Not all of these new armed groups are likely to support an American administration. What weapon of mass destruction could be more threatening to American security than thousands of assault rifles in the hands of angry Arabs surrounding the US Army? It is interesting that a threat of this nature is rarely addressed in the US media, despite similar threats already existing across the region, from Lebanon to Gaza to Tehran.
The volatility of the threat from Saddam was quite apparent. After the weapons inspectors left in 1998, uncertainty settled over the situation. The second Palestinian Intifada erupted in September 2000, and eventually Saddam began awarding money to the families of suicide bombers, thusly supporting terror and increasing volatility. September 11 occurred which upset US political norms and made many people fearful of what Saddam might be capable of in the future. Middle Eastern politics has always been a volatile game. After September 11, with forces like Al-Qaeda, Ariel Sharon, Yasir Arafat, Saddam Hussein, the ayatollahs, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, HAMAS, and the Kurds all smelling blood, the situation could not have become any more volatile.
The Republicans effectively exploited this volatility by fear-mongering about Saddam's weapons in the November election and in turn gained more power. They will likely exploit similar fears and amplify perceptions of volatility in the future to secure Bush's re-election.
The games of war and peace cannot simply be explained as a moral panic. However, to hold a public in fear, to fabricate connections and distort threats while exploiting pre-existing hostilities and concerns, bears a distinct impression of something like a moral panic. Whether or not the effects of the panic-like political environment can be extended to the next presidential election is the most important question now.